Curated by artist Christian Jankowski, Manifesta 11 is being held in Zurich and concentrates on a theme – work and money – well-suited to a city that is an international centre for finance and services.
Manifesta began as a contemporary art biennial sui generis: itinerant and on the edge, intended to be held in places characterised by change and to discuss an evolving world. Its ambition is to respond to the imperatives of the time and react, via the work of artists, to social and geopolitical situations identified each time as fundamental.
The country selected as the site for each edition, with its specific characteristics, acts as a reference for the thematic choices of the curator, who has to then identify new modalities of relating to the host location. The eleventh edition has been curated by an artist, Christian Jankowski: this is nothing new, the Berlin Biennial was curated by Maurizio Cattelan in 2006 and by Artur Zmijewski in 2012; the next edition of Istanbul has been entrusted to Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset.
The location is Zurich: a city that is an international centre for finance and services. Hence the theme – work, money – and the title: “What People Do For Money: Some Joint Ventures.” The exhibition sites are the Löwenbräu Kunst, site of the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst and a series of portentous galleries, and the Helmhaus Löwenbräukunst-Areal; in addition to these are around thirty other sites spread across the city, from the university to the church and a photography store. The theme of what people are willing to do for money has been addressed by Jankowski via a series of “historic” works – from August Sander to Bruno Munari – and then developed in more contemporary works.
Collaboration between artists and non-artists, inclusion of a public outside of artistic circles and reflection on mass-media formats are the three principles that Jankowski adopts in his artistic practice and are the motive that convinced the selection committee to choose him as the curator. So they are also the basic principles behind the exhibition. Principles that have given rise to the idea of stimulating the making of thirty new works based on the cooperation been an artist and a professional from another category.
Thus for example, Turkish artist Asli Çavuşoğlu has sought to go beyond the idealised representation of the Swiss landscape working, with the help of a restorer, on a series of traditional paintings, searching for layers beneath the surface; Mario García Torres has written a libretto dedicated to Richard Wagner for the retired tenor Christoph Homberter, in which he alludes to the business recession; Teresa Margolles has staged between Zurich and Ciudad Juarex a poker game involving transgendered workers. Giullame Bijl has worked with a dog stylist; Andrea Éva Győri with a psychologist-sexologist; there are also journalists, meteorologists, clockmakers, dentists, bankers and more. An ironic spirit, typical of Jankowski, emerges in many works. It is within this framework that Cattelan has acted, who between the poetic and the scathing, invited a Paralympic athlete to walk on water on the lake at Zurich in her wheelchair, enacting a miracle in the city centre.
Each joint venture is manifested in three points: in a site given over art, in an unusual place corresponding to the activity of the person involved with the artist, and in the Pavillion of Reflections: a floating platform, built on lake Zurich specially for Manifesta 11 by British architecture practice Tom Emerson, in collaboration with thirty architecture students from EPFZ; here the process that has accompanied each of the projects is "reflected' in the form of a film. During the day the Pavillion of Reflections is used as a reference point and as a beach resort. Manifesta 11 also involves Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dada, that has become a performance theatre for the entire event. Here was staged, among other things, the intense performance that Ulay dedicated to the fertilizing strength of Dada.
However, apart from episodes like this, the exhibition is somewhat unsatisfying. The theme selected is cogent, the fact of being in Zurich could have made the exhibition pivotal, if the questions of the economy, finance and the market with their mechanisms and their visible and invisible consequences had been addressed differently. Looking closely, there is work of a good standard. But that's the point, you have to want to look. On a curatorial level the treatment ends up being literal, academic. The overall exhibition does not seem to transmit an original idea; nor replay the many dramas attributable today to a global economy that tends to neglect people. Without a doubt, what contributes to this feeling a rather dull installation, that risks neutralising even extraordinary works like that of Harun Farocki on industrial work or Santiago Sierra on the theme of security.
Going against the generally unhappy feel of the exhibition are the Artoons, large, humorous, line-drawn vignettes dedicated to the art world, its contradictions and its idiosyncrasies. They have been disseminated by Pablo Helguera on the walls of the Löwenbräu Kunst and are too true to not raise a smile. They remind us how much art risks, always poised between a search for meaning and strategy for success; and doesn't describe things we find ourselves doing WITHOUT money; inside and outside the world of art.